Roots Music Spotlight: A Conversation With Ray Bonneville

Get to know the iconic rhythmic roots musician in this exclusive story for Roughstock.

Now from the 'something different and cool' file comes this exclusive interview with Ray Bonneville, one of roots music's groove-oriented aritsts. Hailing from Canada but raised in the USA, Bonneville has lead an interesting life and is inspired by the souful music of Louisiana. Get to know the iconic roots artst here!

Stormy Lewis:  When you were a child your family moved from Quebec to Boston and you arrived not speaking any English.  What was that like? 

Ray Bonneville:  It was quite challenging.  I was always a confident kid, so it didn’t scare me but I had two months to learn English.  Luckily I had a little friend across the street who I liked where my father moved us.  Basically I went in there at the mercy of the other kids who tricked me and stuff.  It was pretty challenging, but after six months to a year I started to get the hang of it. 

SL:  Did you get to the point where you could enjoy school, or did that always leave you with a bad taste in your mouth?

RB:  The school system put me into a division of kids who were much less interested because they said to themselves “this kid’s got a language barrier so we’re going to put him in with the slow people.”  I wasn’t slow so what happened is that I lost interest.  That’s how I would up playing the guitar.  I just lost all interest in school because there was no more challenge.  My mother bought me a guitar and I was off and running, and it really began to pull at me.

SL:  You are a self-taught musician.  How many instruments do you play?

RB:  I play guitar and harmonica and I sing.  I band a little bit on a piano.  The first thing I did was bang on a piano, but I never took any lessons or anything.  For a brief time I played the saxophone, but really my instruments were guitar and harmonica. 

SL:  Which instrument was the hardest for you to learn and why?

RB:  The harmonica was the hardest to learn because there is no sure way to learn it but to listen to records and emulate what you hear yourself.  You only have ten holes and really it’s all about bending the notes.  You really can’t go to school for that.  I learned to play the harmonica driving a taxicab in Boston after I came home from the military.  I heard the blues guys playing the harmonica and I was really, really drawn to that, I made it my business to every waking second be playing that thing.  And guitar…I took two lessons and I learned and E chord.  I really loved that E chord and it was all I really wanted to play.  My parents finally sat me down and said “We really wish you would learn another chord or two.” 

SL:  My poor parents had to suffer through me learning to play the clarinet.  Any reeded instrument has a squeaky learning curve.

RB:  It does.

SL:  After you got out of the military, you got over your fear of flying by getting your commercial pilots license.  Tell me about that.

RB:  I got my commercial pilots license when I was in my latish twenties—twenty seven or twenty eight.  I had only two years to use the GI Bill--that is the money that the government gives you after you have been in the military.  I had two years left and I was afraid I was going to run out of it and I did not want to go to college or pursue any kind of academics.  I was, for some reason, afraid of flying.  I don’t recall my thought process but I went to the airport in Boulder, Colorado and I said “I would like to take a flying lesson.”  I was immediately hooked, so I spent the next two years pretty much living at the airport and playing gigs.  I got my private license, my commercial license, my instrument license my multiengine license and later I went on to get my seaplane license to fly on water.  And that is really where I wound up, ten years later, flying in the bush in Canada.  That’s where I had a close call and scared myself and gave up the airplanes, took an apartment in Montreal and started writing records.

SL:  I think it was before you were a bush pilot that you lived in Paris, or was that afterward?

RB:  In Paris?  Paris was before that.  Paris was…after Boulder, I lived in Alaska. after Alaska, I lived in Seattle.  I went from Seattle to Paris and I lived in Paris for about a year. 

SL:  I have heard that the audiences in Europe tend to be a little quieter and more contemplative than their American counterparts. 

RB:  It was the first time I ran into an audience that was dead quiet.  I had been playing in bars and rowdy places for a long time and I was not used to be listened to intently.  I was playing bars where they sold alcohol…playing a bar.  It was quite something…The first time I played in front of a quiet audience it really freaked me out. 

SL:  How did you get over that and get more comfortable playing in from of them? 

RB:  I didn’t get comfortable for a long time.  I stayed uncomfortable the better part of my stay there.  I just learned that when you get done playing a song you better get ready to either say something or play another song, so I got pretty quick at playing another song.  This was a French audience, so I was explaining the songs a little bit in French.  It’s difficult to talk about American blues songs using the French language.  It wasn’t until years and years later that I became comfortable on stage in front of a very quiet audience.  And now I look for that, you know.

SL:  What helped you get comfortable?

RB:  What helped me get comfortable was to learn that I need to show myself and I need to show that I’m vulnerable.  Folks are comfortable only if you are comfortable.  If you are uncomfortable, they are uncomfortable.  So, I learned to just open my mouth, not care what I was going to say and just go with it.

SL:  So you just released a new album, correct?

RB:  Yep, it’s called Easy Going.

SL:  Tell me a little about that album.

RB:  That album I went in to the studio with Gurf Morlix and my friend Geoff Arsenault probably about eight months ago or even a year ago and recorded those songs live off the floor.  Some of those songs were not completely finished yet and I kind of record them and then I rewrote a lot of the lyrics over and over again until I had it right.  It’s one of those weird ways to make a record and I will probably try to not do it that way again.  It was kind of stressful.

SL:  Why did you choose to cover Hank Williams’ “So Lonesome I Could Cry” on the record?

RB:  I love Hank Williams and I love the simple way he writes.  To me he’s a blues guy with a cowboy hat.  He wrote all of those great songs before he was thirty years old.  I always was very drawn to his way of writing and singing from the heart.  He had a certain truth that spoke to many, many people.  He was a rowdy, reckless guy.  Not unlike Townes Van Zandt or (Austin blues great) Blaze Foley or someone like that.  He wrote all these beautifully, but his personal life was a wreck.  He died in the backseat of a Cadillac when he was only twenty nine years old.  He was in and out of jail.  He was a rowdy guy, a drinker, and he was in constant pain.  I love that song “So Lonesome I Could Cry” because the words are just beautiful.

SL:  I think the line with the whippoorwill that sound to blue to cry because he lost the will to live is the perfect image based metaphor for heartbreak. 

RB:  Yeah, it really is.

SL:  I am a huge fan of murder ballads.

RB:  Yeah?

SL:  My dad kept me steeped in old classic country and folk.  What inspired you to write “Love Is Wicked?”

RB:  I like to write about dark things and about people who live on the edge of society.  I am not always sure when I start a song where it’s going to go, but if I can go to a place that is dark I usually will.   That’s where that song took me.  When I started writing it I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in that song.  I always go down one road and if it doesn’t take me where I like or if I don’t believe it I’ll go down another road.  I like this road it went down, this tragedy, this dark road.  Somebody put it a little while ago that it is really like Frankie and Johnny done in a different way, done in a film noir kind of way.

SL:  There is also a whole thread of cheating spouse murder ballads that run through both country and folk music. 

RB:  A lot of bluegrass is like that and a lot of blues is like that.  Ledbelly was in prison for murder.  I think Johnny Cash was like that too.  He liked those dark people…”Long Black Veil” and those songs.  “Folsom Prison Blues,” “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”

SL:  Even if you go back all the way to songs like “She Walks These Hills” and even back to the beginning of the country when we had the first Scottish ballads coming over, a lot of those were cheating spouse murder ballads.

RB:  That’s right.  And someone, some journalist, called “Mile Marker 41” a murder ballad even though I never mention anything like that in that song.  I just set the scene of something dark happening by the side of the road. 

SL:  That was the next song I was going to ask you about, because that was another song I really liked off of the album.  I liked that sense that something desperate was getting set into motion.  And even though you really didn’t know if it was going to take off, because the narrator didn’t know if it was going to take off, you had the sense that was the last ditch effort on a last chance ride.  What inspired that song?

RB:  I like the idea of mile markers.  I am always looking at them on the road.  I just imagined that something happened there.  Again, I went down a couple of different roads.  I always write way too much detail and at some point, if I’m lucky, inside too many words, I’ll see something.  Then I take away all the words that don’t pertain to that one particular thing.  I want to let the listener decide, a lot of time, what is happening, let them put their own details in so that the song in theirs not mine.  I just kind of sketched those three verses.  It’s just kind of a guy who is quite paranoid.  He’s done something with somebody and he calls up his buddy and he says “We gotta go back or we’re gonna get caught.”  So they get back and I don’t really know myself what happened there.

SL:  We have something in common.  We both like Flannery O’Connor. 

RB:  Oh, great.  So you can see why.  Because you know how dark she writes. 

SL:  What do you find most compelling about her writing?

RB:  She is just takes no prisoners.  She just takes you right there in her stories.  You are right there on the scene with those people, on a street with them or on a farm or on a road.  She just pulls me in and I just love the way she writes. 

SL:  So do you think of yourself as a singer first, as a songwriter first or as a guitar player first?

RB:  I don’t know how to answer that.  I’m both, without them both together I have nothing.  I am a guitar player, but the guitar just lays down the hypnosis of the story, if you will.  The heartbeat.  The thing.

SL:  So what are your plans for the rest of the year?

RB:  I’m going to be touring.  I have a lot gigs lined up between now and the end of the year. I am going to Europe and Canada, I’m going to the West Coast.  I’m in the Mid-West right now, I’m in Wisconsin right now.  I played in the Minnesota area the last couple of days.  I’m going up to Winona tomorrow.  I’m playing some festivals in Canada and the Midwest.  I’m touring this album.  I want this album to get out there.  The show I am doing on May 17th at the Strange Brew is my record Release and I really want to have folks come out to that.  I really want to tell folks about this new record.